Pandemic still a backdrop as WA lawmakers start new session
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The 2022 legislative session in Washington state will look much like the one a year ago: a limited number of lawmakers on site at the Capitol, and committee hearings being fully remote due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
There are a few key differences: While the galleries overlooking the House and Senate chambers are closed for now, the Capitol building itself will be open to the public. Last year, it was closed due to the pandemic, but the public also couldn’t get close to the building due to fencing and hundreds of National Guard members posted there amid security concerns following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and a group breaching the fence at Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s residence on the state Capitol campus.
For those working on campus during the 60-day legislative session that starts Monday, testing, masking and distancing protocols will be in place.
In the House, regular testing will be required and only lawmakers who have provided verification of their vaccination — including a booster — will be among the five total legislators on the floor. In the Senate, 15 lawmakers — eight Democrats and seven Republicans — will be allowed regardless of vaccination status, but must provide a same-day negative test.
House and Senate leaders said they will re-evaluate their plans every two weeks, and changes could occur depending on the state of the pandemic.
All committee hearings, in both chambers, will be held remotely, with public participation. As before the pandemic, hearings and floor votes will continue to be broadcast or live streamed by TVW, the state’s government affairs channel.
Democratic majority leaders have expressed confidence that they will be able to be productive working mostly remote, pointing the host of bills they passed the year before in similar circumstances and the increase in public participation at committee hearings since people could attend virtually from across the state.
Republicans — and some Democratic lawmakers — have argued that the same protocols that make it safe for kids remain in their school classrooms show that they could safely meet in person at the Capitol.
The main focus of the session is for lawmakers to craft a supplemental two-year state budget plan. Inslee released a nearly $62 billion plan last month, and the House and Senate will release their own proposals in the coming weeks.
Lawmakers are benefiting from a year of positive state revenue forecasts plus unspent federal money as they head into the budget process.
“It’s a short session but I believe it can be an extraordinary session,” Inslee said at The Associated Press Legislative Preview on Thursday. “And the reason is, we have extraordinary challenges of multiple crises in our state, and I believe we have the capability of responding to them with the boldness and action-oriented agenda that I think is necessary for our state.”
Here’s a look at just a few of the things that lawmakers are likely to address:
COVID-19 RESPONSE: This is the third legislative session where the pandemic has loomed over lawmakers’ work. There’s more than $1 billion in unspent federal funds, and Inslee and Democratic leaders want to use that one-time money — in addition to state funds — to help in areas like food assistance programs, increasing acute care hospital capacity and specialized COVID-19 units, and addressing things like learning loss and offering more mental health and social supports for K-12 students who have struggled during the pandemic. Inslee has also proposed spending nearly $300 million on containing the ongoing pandemic, on things like diagnostic testing, contact tracing, outbreak response and expanding access to vaccines.
HOMELESSNESS AND HOUSING:
Inslee has proposed several ideas to address homelessness in the state, including a plan to help people stay in their homes, increasing emergency shelters and permanent supportive housing and expanding services for addiction or mental health issues. Inslee wants the state to spend about $815 million, with more than two-thirds covered by federal coronavirus funding the state has received. Inslee also wants a policy change on so-called “middle housing” and a bill sponsored by six Democrats in the House has already been introduced that looks to expand where housing supply like duplexes, triplexes and quads can be built.
LONG-TERM CARE ACT:
Democratic lawmakers have already introduced a bill looking to delay a payroll tax for the state’s long-term care program, which was approved in 2019 and is meant to offer assistance for things like in-home care, home modifications like wheelchair ramps and rides to the doctor. The lifetime maximum of the benefit is $36,500, with annual increases to be determined based on inflation, and the program is funded by workers, who pay a premium of .58% of total pay per paycheck starting this month. After criticisms related to opt-out options for the program, along with those who pay into the program but may never benefit, Inslee last month announced the state wouldn’t collect the assessments from employers before April. One bill introduced would delay the tax until July 1, 2023 and would refund any premiums that were collected before that date. Another bill would allow people who work in Washington but live in other states to opt out, along with spouses or partners of active military members. Republicans want the underlying law repealed, and have argued that the effort should be focused on working with private industry plans to make them more affordable.
Inspired by 2020’s protests for racial justice, Democratic lawmakers last year passed the nation’s most ambitious package of police reform legislation, despite objections from Republicans and law enforcement groups that some changes went too far. While Democrats say overall the bills are working, they have acknowledged that restrictions on using force have hobbled officers in certain situations, such as responding to mental health crises, and this session they intend to make clear that police can use force to assist in those cases. They also plan to loosen use-of-force restrictions in cases where police are investigating violent crime, and they say they are open to considering a Republican proposal that would lessen restrictions on vehicular pursuits.
Inslee wants lawmakers to spend $626 million out of existing state revenues for a slate of measures that include a plan to offer rebates for new and used electric vehicles. He also wants to require all new construction that begins in 2034 to reduce energy use by 80% and use all-electric equipment and appliances, and to allow consumer-owned utilities to use ratepayer funds for incentive programs to switch customers from fossil fuels like gas to electric space and water heating. Republicans argue that the governor’s proposals don’t help protect the state from climate impacts like wildfires and flooding. A proposal by House Republicans wants to put state funds toward climate adaptation, like flood protection infrastructure.
AP writer Gene Johnson contributed from Seattle.